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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Comparison: Matchbox Sports Cars 2016

The mood at Matchbox is a mixed bag: while there is a current team trying to revive Matchbox to its glory days, cost-cutting and a glut of generic fantasy castings means that its a long way to go.  However, despite the amount of fantasy off-road vehicles there is a nice group of modern sports cars, and here's four to prove it.  Each one has been introduced each year since 2013 and has left a positive impression on each of us, and except for one all sport the latest deco for 2016.  The newest member is the all-new 2015 Mazda MX-5 Miata that is beautifully done, and it competes against the champion Alfa Romeo 4C in the new (and short-lived) white color, the 2014 Porsche Cayman S released last year in red, and the old-friend the BMW 1M coupe in the new Best of World series sporing black trim and rubber tires.  Time to spread out, have fun, and see who's the winner.

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The highlight here is the new Mazda Miata.  This is the first for the Matchbox brand and the execution is excellent.  The red paint looks good on dark gray 5-spoke wheels (the spinner wheels were considered first, but changed at the last minute).  The front has detailed headlights with LED running lights below and to the sides of the large grille.  The projector beam in the headlamps tend to be off-positioned on some models (I had to use a red Sharpie to cover up areas where the lens overlaps the housing).  The sides are nice and clean with exterior mirrors and proper windshield height, while the rear has detailed taillights with LED brake lights, reverse lamps below on the rear bumper next to the diffuser and the exhaust tip just below.  It looks goregous!  The Alfa 4C looks just as good in white with the familiar headlight and front grille details, the rear taillights and plate area, and smooth styling though it lacks exterior mirrors and the roof design is a bit choppy in details.  The BMW 1M is an old friend and still looks good for a two-box coupe with flared fenders, large front bumper scoops, and quad exhaust at the rear.  The blacked-out wheels look great, but the flat black graphics seem to be too much for the car.  The Porsche Cayman looks better in red with my tester at least has better headlight placement.  The taillights have a bit more white and the 5-spoke wheels look great here, but the beltline is too tall and the front-end is too flat-faced.

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The Miata is the only car here with right-hand drive, but that's not an issue with a driver-oriented layout that has the 3-spoke steering wheel, dual-pod gauges, six-speed shifter on the console, and even detailed pedals.  The only center stack controls are the HVAC and touch screen for the radio that is controlled by the knob only while driving, located just below the shifter on the console.  The seats are well-done, and the rollbar with smooth top concealment is excellent.  Oh, and check out the red trim on the metal body that mimicks the body-colored trim on the doors. Nice!  The Alfa has a race-car layout with tight-fitting seats for two, a narrow center console, and dashboard with angled center controls towards the driver and a digital gauge cluster behind a non-boosted two-spoke steering wheel.  The Cayman has more cargo room thanks to front and rear trunks, with a more civilized layout that features that familiar dashboard layout and rising center console of the Porsche, but as I criticized on the last test the interior piece sits too low and lacks enough details.  The BMW 1M is growing old no doubt to its dated dashboard layout, yet is the only car here with (tight) seating for four and a reasonable trunk.  Wish the steering wheel was more than a large blank disc.

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All of these cars don't require a lot of power to move, as in the Miata that uses the new 2.0L SkyActiv DOHC I-4 that produces 158 hp. and 148 Ib-ft of torque through a 6-speed manual.  The Alfa 4C uses a mid-ship 1.7L DOHC turbocharged I-4 that produces 237 hp. and 248 Ib-ft of torque through a 6-speed automated manual transmission.  The Porsche Cayman also uses a mid-ship engine, but this time a 3.4L DOHC flat-6 that produces 325 hp. and 273 Ib-ft. of torque through a six-speed manual transmission.  The BMW 1M uses a 3.0L twin-turbocharged DOHC I-6 that produces 340 hp. and 332 Ib-ft of torque through a six-speed manual transmission.

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Acceleration and Braking

In acceleration runs the BMW 1M is still the beast with lots of power on tap, but right behind is the Alfa 4C as its small turbocharged mill with lighter weight that blasts this car like a mega supercar.  The Miata, despite lack of power, doesn't have any problems with acceleration like the 4C it hustles much less weight around.  The Cayman is strong off the line, but feels bulkier compared to the rest.  The 4C is no match for braking with super-short stopping distances, with the 1M right behind.  The Miata did fare well, with the Cayman the longest but still pretty respectable stopping distance.

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Here's where things get interesting: The 4C is a beast on the track as its small length and wide track made it the handling favorite of the group, and with the mid-engine setup and plenty of grip this car neither oversteers or understeers!  The 1M does the same thing with plenty of grip with or without the rubber tires, but the car is a bit bulkier than the 4C so it seems a bit slow.  The Miata's small size was a treat to toss around, but like the real car there's too much body roll which in turn leads to a bit of oversteer that is easy to correct.  A remedy for the Miata's handling will come in the Hot Wheels version that I'll profile in the coming weeks.  The Cayman does a pretty respectable job with handling as well with similar, if not same, grip as the 1M and 4C.  It just doesn't feel as much fun.  The Miata, on the other hand, would feel very comfortable on the road, as does the Cayman, while the 1M and 4C's track-ready suspension can be a bit uncomforting on rough pavement.

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It's a toss-up between the Miata and 4C: both offer excellent, and beautiful, exterior styling, well-appointed interior, and fun-to-drive dynamics.  It just depends on if you want a car for the track (4C) or the road (Miata).  The BMW 1M still looks good, but its getting dated and it still has a few design flaws (the rear taillight graphics still don't wrap around and this is a premium model!)  The Cayman is nice to have but it lacks the level of fun and crisp details that the others have.

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The Miata just wins this hands-down with a sub-$20,000 starting price.  All the others start creeping up past $50 grand.  The Cayman is next, followed by the 1M, and startingly the Alfa 4C that offers less content than the advertised $70 grand sticker price.

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It was a fun test with these four cars, so it's time to see who's the winner.  Fourth place goes to the Porsche Cayman S:  If this was the lone car of the Matchbox line it would be a pretty enjoyable choice, but with better cars here the poor detail areas and sublime performance just doesn't cut it.  Third place goes to the BMW 1M Coupe: The fierce German still goes on strong with looks to kill and performance to match, too bad it's still stuck with a dated 1-series platform.  Second Place goes to the Alfa 4C: Stylish, fast, agile, it's a superb car but loses only to it's difficult day-to-day driving dynamics and high price sticker.  First place winner is the 2015 Mazda MX-5 Miata: Beautiful styling, excellent interior details, fun-to-drive handling, and affordable.  The only thing it needs is suspension upgrades for the track, which of course can be directed over to the blue brand where they have a track-ready Miata waiting for you.

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